Terminology matters in race conversations

We can do more about racism in America than we might think.

Until a few months ago, I thought I was powerless when it came to racism. I thought it was an issue that, unless I was in the government or a civil rights group, I could do nothing about. That all changed when I realized that my everyday actions and opinions have more of an effect on people than I thought.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking with Maria Cruz Lee, the director of engagement at the civil rights group, Define American.

In our conversation, she pointed out how her group had recently experienced a victory in petitioning for the removal of the phrase “illegal immigrant” from the Associated Press Stylebook (which regulates grammatical and linguistic guidelines for American newspapers).

When Lee first told me this, I was perplexed. After all, doesn’t “illegal” refer to people who cross our borders without going through the legalization process? But then the wheels began to turn.

I began comparing newspaper clippings I have seen about immigration reform in America to those about Syrian refugees immigrating to Europe and surrounding areas. It seemed the Syrian refugees were given preferential treatment in the papers, with terms such as “migrants” and “fugitives” being used to describe their situation of being forced to emigrate from Syria.

This was not the case for those crossing the border into the States, where media focused on their illegal status. By using the now-omitted term, the papers were potentially reducing millions of people, like you and me, down to a purely legal, racial status.

Though I had thought about the issue of language in this context before, this example got the point across to me without question: the words we use when talking about racial issues leave a huge impact on the perception of the matter at hand.

Another prime example of this concept is the ongoing battle between whether we should say “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter.”

Yes, all lives matter. But we’re missing the point when we say that. Are all other races of Americans shot and killed by the police at the same rate as black Americans? No, they are not.

By choosing to say “All Lives Matter,” we are promoting the false notion that all lives, no matter what their skin color, are treated fairly by law enforcement in America. The reason “Black Lives Matter” should be said is that it warrants specific, necessary attention to an important issue.

By being careless about our words when talking about racial issues, we’re choosing to neglect real problems that affect the treatment of whole population groups. It’s bad enough that entire races are perceived through a stereotypical lens, but the fact that well-meaning individuals hurt the chance of improvement by not thinking before they speak is tragic.

The people who are affected by these words are people who need our help. They need reforms in this nation to take place so that it will be easier for them to become citizens, to get jobs, to be able to walk in the park at night without fear of police brutality.

Because of these implications, we must all–regardless of skin color, creed or background–think before we speak when it comes to race. If we start small, we may first change our own minds toward these impactful issues. And if we can change our own minds, we may then be able to act in meaningful ways.

Bryan is a senior majoring in communication. He can be reached at BryanM@jbu.edu.